Maybe your dog has mastered commands like "sit", "stay", "roll-over" and "fetch", but how does he do with laser scanners and high-def cameras? Ford's newest team members can do it all. Two 4-legged robodogs from robotics company, Boston Dynamics, have been recruited by the automaker to help with retooling its factories. They may not have the cuteness factor of your French bulldog or the unconditional devotion of your German shepherd, but their high-tech capabilities will be an important engineering asset for Ford.
The robodogs, named Spot and Fluffy, are part of Ford's manufacturing pilot program which aims to increase efficiency, reduce costs and save time. Weighing in at 70 lbs, with a bright yellow body and nimble legs, the robots will be hard to miss as they navigate the factory floor. Their mission? To laser scan the plant, squeeze into hard to reach areas, and collect data which the engineers will use to update the original CAD design used for retooling.
“We design and build the plant. After that, over the years, changes are made that rarely get documented,” says Mark Goderis, Ford’s digital engineering manager. “By having the robots scan our facility, we can see what it actually looks like now and build a new engineering model. That digital model is then used when we need to retool the plant for new products.”
In order to get the data for the digital modeling, Spot and Fluffy are outfitted with 5 cameras and can get up to speeds of 3 mph on their 4 legs and 2-hour battery life. The advantage of the robodogs compared to a traditional wheeled robot is their mobility to tackle physical obstacles within the plant. Three operational gaits allow them to walk on stable ground, uneven terrains like grates, as well as stairs or inclines. To squeeze into the tightest areas of the factory, Spot and Fluffy can stretch out from their normal crouch position to enter spaces that are inconvenient or dangerous for a human team member.
The brains behind the robodog operation come from Boston Dynamics, a company known for creating advanced mobile robots that resemble humans and animals. The reason for the lifelike design is not the coolness factor (although that's an added bonus). It all comes to balance and dynamic motion.
According to the company, "our robots can navigate tough unstructured, unknown or antagonistic terrain with ease. Wheeled and tracked robots are limited by stairs, gaps, ground-level obstructions such as cabling and staged materials, and minor height differences in flooring. These environments don't present the same challenges for legged robots".
The goal of this pilot program is to reduce the time it takes to scan a plant, along with reducing costs. The manual scanning process traditionally takes up to two weeks, but with Fluffy and Spot on board, Ford hopes to cut that time in half. According to Goderis, “We used to use a tripod, and we would walk around the facility stopping at different locations, each time standing around for five minutes waiting for the laser to scan."
Not only is the manual process time consuming, but it is expensive at $300,000 to scan one facility. By automating and speeding up the process, the robots can provide significant savings across all factories and bring vehicles to market faster.
Currently, the robodogs are operated through a remote control device from up to 50 feet away, and are programmed to follow a specific path. According to Ford, if the pilot is successful, the long-term plan is to remotely operate the dogs for "plant missions" and get instant reports from any of the company's locations. In addition to their hard-working nature, Fluffy and Spot bring some entertainment along with the ability to execute dog commands like "sit" and "roll-over".